by Barbara Burke
Anthony Caere, Head of the Virunga Air Wing in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, does not usually attend black tie affairs in Beverly Hills. However, on October
22, he was honored to speak to a group of distinguished guests at the annual gala for Last Chance for Animals where the attendees honored Malibuite Cindy Landon as the philanthropist of the year.
Last Chance for Animals is a non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating animal exploitation through education, investigations, legislation, and public awareness campaigns. LCA was founded by Chris DeRose, actor turned animal activist. Last Chance for Animals’ key initiatives, the Virunga campaign, is centered on the plight of the park’s 360 rangers who risk their lives daily defending the park and its inhabitants from poachers, militants, and environmental exploitation. Ms. Landon donated monies to help purchase a new plane for Caere and other pilots to fly at Virunga National Park as they desperately try to save the imperiled elephants and other animals at the Park before it is too late.
Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on the border of Uganda and Rwanda, is Africa’s oldest national park and is also the continent’s most biologically diverse protected area. The park’s 7800 square kilometers (3000 square miles) includes forests, savannas, lava plains, swamps, erosion valleys, active volcanoes, and the glaciated peaks of the Rwenzori mountains.
Elephants are one of Virunga’s most sentient and gentle residents. Like elsewhere in Africa, the illegal ivory trade is decimating their numbers. Virunga’s pilots and rangers are deeply saddened each time one of these magnificent creatures gets cut down by poachers. According to Central Sector Warden, Rodrigue Mugaruka — the only hope to save Virunga’s elephants is to increase the number of highly trained rangers in the park and provide them with the tools they need.
Malibu Chronicle interviewed Caere, who flies over the park in support of the Virunga rangers
who risk their lives in this face-off with poachers, to get a better understanding of the challenges officials at Virunga face and the efforts they make to save the animals.
This battle is worth waging. With the help of Last Chance for Animals, Landon, and other organizations, the rangers at Virunga are beginning to win the fight.
“We have about 200 elephants in Virunga,” Caere said. “They cross the border with Uganda. Fortunately, they are doing better and better. Also, the mountain gorillas will reach 1,000 soon which is good. Unfortunately, however, Rhinos have disappeared from the whole Congo.”
The disappearance of the Rhinos manifests how precarious life is for endangered species at Virunga which is home to about a quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas. The Park’s two other Great Ape species, eastern lowland Grauer’s gorillas and chimpanzees, make Virunga the only park in the world to host three taxa of Great Apes. Another prominent inhabitant of the park is the Okapi, an endangered species that resembles a zebra but is more closely related to the giraffe. Large colonies of hippopotami, forest and savanna elephants, lions, and numerous rare bird species can also be found in the park.
Caere spends long hours flying over Virunga looking for poachers or for other situations that put the animals in peril. It is tough going, but it is a rewarding endeavor.
“I fly about 300 to 400 kilometers a day.” Caere said. “I don’t feel too lonely. Sometimes I feel afraid, but that keeps me more focused. Not being afraid would maybe mean that I would become too sure or reckless.”
Unfortunately, some rangers protecting the animals have been killed and injured. Nevertheless, Caere and the rangers he assists are fiercely dedicated to the animals and to Virunga.
“It’s an honor to work in the oldest and most diverse and beautiful national park of Africa. And we are winning the fight!” he said.
Caere spots the animals from the air, then sends in the rangers to address any problems.
“It’s always a great moment when we hear in the debriefing that a mission was a success! Any animal counts, from elephants to snakes.” Caere said.
Success stories that are heartening abound.
“A few weeks ago, I needed to evacuate a chimp baby,” Caere recalled. “His whole family was killed for bush meat, and they wanted to sell the baby as a pet. Recovering that little baby and the look in his eyes when he felt safe is the biggest reward you can get.”
Waves of love and support, both emotional and financial, have been sent from Malibu all across the planet to Caere and all the staff at Virunga National Park, and, of course, to all the animals that desperately need support and caring.
For more information, visit: lcanimal.org
Telephone: (310) 271-6096
Embedded Video Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=my-zSrz7M04
Virunga National Park Website: https://virunga.org